Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Jim McCarthy talks The Tournament of Books

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m obsessed with awards shows. And not just the big ones like the Oscars and Emmys. I’m the guy watching the SAG Awards on Bravo, the Independent Spirit Awards, the Tony’s, the Emmy’s, the Golden Globes. If there’s a trophy, I’m there. I was in the audience (okay, I was working the event) when Jonathan Franzen snagged the National Book Award for THE CORRECTIONS (a very just victory), and Arthur Miller received a lifetime achievement award. I’m the kind of person who still remembers with an unfortunate degree of anguish that Leaving Las Vegas didn’t even get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar the year that Braveheart won. So when I caught on that Powell’s and The Morning News were doing a Tournament of Books to coincide with March Madness, let’s just say I found a new favorite website.

Starting with 32 books from 2006, each title was pitted against one other for single round eliminations as judged by a small panel of random literary types. This went on until there were two semi-finalists. Now, two eliminated titles will be brought back for a second chance. Then, once down to two finalists, all of the judges will have to pick between them to crown one ultimate victor.

Looking over the initial list of contenders, I realized that I had only read two of the books so far. An anemic showing at best. There are a bunch of authors whose previous work I’ve read (I’ll get to your new one soon, Richard Ford!), and some of the novels are already in my piles to read at home. This is to say, I don’t have a favorite in this contest. There is, however, one novel on the list that everyone seems to love, and I happen to…well, let’s say, dislike.

When something receives universal acclaim, I often manage to find a way to hate it. I’m the schmuck who couldn’t stand Lost in Translation and who couldn’t fall in love with Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. I have to wonder if it’s me being unintentionally contrarian, or if maybe, just maybe, my opinions are actually defensible. Which brings me, nervously, to THE ROAD.

Everyone loves THE ROAD. It has sailed through the rounds of the Tournament of Books, eviscerating the competition and garnering praise aplenty. In case you haven’t read it, here’s a synopsis: guy and his son walk down a post-apocalyptic road dodging cannibals. The End. Sure, the writing is terse and impressive. I can really, really picture the grey. And the ash. And the burnt logs. And the grey. Cormac McCarthy is a superb writer. With THE ROAD, he jotted down a brilliant short story. A very, very overlong short story. Philosophical musings? Check. Interesting thinking points? Sure. Sleep inducing? Ding ding ding! For a book that people have described as “riveting,” I sure couldn’t wait for it to be over.

But here’s the thing: I feel guilty for not liking it. Critics seems so often to focus on what books are unworthy or unaccomplished that I feel bad about raining on the parade of something so well liked. It makes me want to shout out the names of popular books that I thought were worthy of every bit of their praise (THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA!) if only because so much writing about literature seems focused on the negatives. This leaves me with questions: Does all of the carping about bad books make people more likely to search out the good stuff? Or does it just discourage people from reading at all?

And we’re back at the Tournament of Books. We’re a competitive people. And by we, I mean me. I love to see winners and losers. I’m inspired by competition in a strange, some might say sadistic, way. Since I’ve never developed an affinity for sports (besides the Olympics…don’t get me started), I enjoy watching competitions involving things I care about: movies, books, theater, America’s potential next top models…you know: the arts. But what role does that competition really serve? SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE is still one of my three favorite books, even if it did lose the 1970 National Book Award to THEM by Joyce Carol Oates. Can the arts, particularly the literary arts, be judged fairly in the moment? More importantly, how should they be judged at all?

I’ll be following these last rounds of the Tournament of Books eagerly, hoping for THE ROAD to fall by the wayside, but I’m probably not the better for it. I’ll give the tournament judges this: plenty seem to go about the task playfully, whether acknowledging that they’re scared of AGAINST THE DAY’S thousand-plus pages or that their decisions ultimately came down to matters of personal preference and not quality.

Having not come around to much of a point, I leave anyone reading with this: does it make sense to pit books against each other? Do literary awards make sense?

UPDATE: Apparently, Oprah selected THE ROAD for her next bookclub book. I wasn't tipped off. Just a totally random coincidence.


  1. Great post Jim!

    I'd have to say yes and no. While part of me feels that each book has its own purpose and shouldn't be compared (unjustly or not) to another work, isn't that what writers do when we pitch our ideas to agents and publishers? Or when we (as readers) give our opinion of a novel to others ("It's no To Kill a Mockingbird, but I liked it")?

    Anyway, if there weren't literary awards, we'd have to resort to bitching about the Dancing with the Stars or Pussycat Dolls search instead. Not that anyone watches that stuff or anything...

  2. In case you haven't heard, Oprah has just announced "The Road" as her next book club selection. Will the country now be riveted or asleep?

  3. Jim, this is very funny. I too love competition in any form--there's something about dreams coming true that grabs me every time. I have long history of solo movie-going and once, mistakenly, went to see Leaving Las Vegas to cheer myself up. Yeah, I figured any movie with Las Vegas in the title had to be a pack of laughs. Well, it was good...
    I don't know about judging books and other works of art. I suppose it's clear when something moves the masses, but then what about the stuff that simply had less marketing but might be just as good? Nice question, but fear not--the era of award shows is here for the long haul.

  4. I love awards and competition too, because they create a story around the subject and add glamour and importance to it. I think we need more book tournaments, and not just for literary fiction. That said, pitting novels against each other is an inherently subjective exercise. Which is why I like Tournament of Books for being--as one of the commentators pointed out today--so transparent about their process. Like when they say, I had the flu, didn't feel like reading 1101 pages.

    A quote from John Warner, commentator: "Let this honesty spread to the awards where authors receive cash prizes and crystal figurines instead of live fowl." Right, like that would ever happen!

  5. Of course it's all subjective. It doesn't mean it's not fun. I know exactly how you feel about The Road - I haven't read it, but I have felt that way about other books that have received critical acclaim. At the risk of garnering enduring hatred, I'll mention Catcher in the Rye. Rarely do I see criticism of it. But I didn't like it when I was fifteen and I didn't like it when I reread it a decade later. It's important for us to remember that it takes all kinds of books to serve all the kinds of people out there.

    And the corellary is also true to some extent. A lot of critics like to attack the Davinci Code, but it's a pretty good read and I suspect there's a lot of jealousy at play. I have seen a variety of criticism of James Patterson among the more "literary-minded", but in my humble opinion the Alex Cross of his first six books or so is among the best developed characters in all of American literature. By the same token, I have to choke back my own tendency to dismiss romance - an awful lot of people like it and read it.

    three cheers for variety, I say

  6. As with any of the arts, it's all subjective. Which makes me wonder how books can be labelled a "winner" in a competition? Do sales come in to play? How about publicity? I've often picked up a book to find out what the fuss is all about - especially if it's had negative publicity. And sometimes the books that have received crappy reviews have been a great read for me.
    Whether it's music, movies, books, etc I think it boils down to what mood the audience is in and their personal preferences. We are human after all, and there are some books I would find difficult to read - even if they are the best of their genre. And it's only because I enjoy reading certain types/genres of books and not others. Hence my longwinded comment is..... it's all subjective.

  7. Jim,
    I suppose this country thrives on competition of all sorts. I'm really ambivalent about the whole thing.
    I like books...period. I take recommendations from my family, friends, and other writers. I don't even listen to critics. It annoys me when people tell me what to like!:*)

  8. Any awards chosen by judges are essentially meaningless in my opinion. Which is why I don't watch the Oscars or the Emmies or any of their kin. Book prizes are skewed right off the bat, because each publisher can only submit one book, generally speaking. I think it's a pretty safe bet that any book that makes it to the short list at all is an exceptional book, and which one wins depends more on the trend du jour or the personal tastes of the judges.

    Having said that, in the happy event that I am published some day, I would never turn down an award. They may be meaningless, but I'm sure they boost sales. I'm practical that way... ;o)

  9. Jim,

    I am on page 160 of The Road. The reason I picked it up... Stephen King listed as his favorite book of 2006. Who am I to argue with Stephen King?

    I'm liking it quite a bit. Sorry. But this Tournament of Books you mention... what are the categories? Best book... author... agent???? I think anything to sell more books, get people reading, is a good thing. Period.

    And would you consider The Road a literary novel... or commercial... or does it make a difference.

    Really, I'd consider it horror. Quick math; Cannabalism plus Zombies = Horror

  10. Ah, good point, Brian, I didn't actually mention what the Tournament of Books was ultimately about. It picks the "best" of 32 books. As of this writing, it's down to Gary Shteyngart's ABSURDISTAN (ugh) and THE ROAD (ugher). Here's the link:

    Most of the books would be considered literary, which is perhaps no surprise. Commercial fiction is so rarely gifted with honors (which is an entirely separate post, so I won't get started). As for THE ROAD, if I had to place it in literary or commercial, I'd go literary. It is horror, to an extent--certainly the cannibalism counts, but my read wasn't that those folks were zombies, just people turned to desperate measures.

  11. I LOVE the idea of an tournament of books awards show! Jim - I had no idea this was even out there - what a fantastic idea! I mean, as a nation we're clearly obsessed with competitions these days, and the ones with audience participation are the most popular - almost every show on the teli indicates people are hungry to compare styles and personalities, (and all books have personalities) and crown a champion.

    What a fantastic way to get people involved! To encourage them to switch off the teli and go read a book so that they can then express an opinion! Who cares who wins - it's not really about that. It's about audience participation - did you like the book? No? Why are you the rebel? (And I soooo love that you are, Jim!)

    What I also love is how clear your voice is in this entry - one of the things that I really admire about you is how accessible you are - and have been since the first time I met you. That quality always comes through in your posts - and if you weren't already my agent, I'd be doing cartwheels at the next writer's conference to get your attention! Great idea for a post and really well written, my friend.


  12. I read Slaughterhouse Five at least once a year, and find something new every time.

  13. Regardless of how we feel about THE ROAD or about Oprah, we should all be happy she's promoting current books again. (John Steinbeck didn't need her help.) She has the power to transform mall-shoppers into bookstore-browsers and that can't be a bad thing for any of us!

  14. I haven't read The Road yet, but I cannot say that I find the description compelling. I generally read books others are raving about three or four years after all the hoopla has died down. I still haven't read the DaVinci Code, nor have I read Leaving Las Vegas. This is partly because I am involved in other things, and partly because I too am reluctant to rave over works that have already received universal acclaim.

    Nice to hear that someone else didn't like Lost in Translation, though. As a former part-time Japanese-English translator and 17-year resident of Japan, I couldn't wait to see this. When I finally went to see it, I could hardly concentrate what with all the yawning and snoring that was going on around me.

  15. I find competition of any sort to be largely meaningless. An award given because a work has been judged subjectively against a set of objective standards and proven a good execution of whatever the judges are looking for is one thing, but a competition to judge one book against another is just silly. How can something so terribly subjective as an individual reader's response to a book (as a reader, not as a publishing professional) be even remotely broad enough to be good grounds for judgement?

    As for everyone liking something... well, masses of people are not generally known for their great talent for discernment, so I wouldn't worry about holding a different opinion, even if you couldn't explain why you held it. I'd be more worried if you couldn't say why you agreed.

  16. ALL award competitions, from the Oscar to the high school gym are based on politics with underlying reasons (whose turn is it this year, is often what it comes down to in the end). They are fun in a general sense, but should never be taken seriously when it comes to subjective taste in reading, viewing, or cheerleading. It's called playing the game, no matter what profession is involved.

  17. I'm inclined to support literary awards. Competition is an excellent motivation to excel, as many of the others have said. Especially in the case of authors, there is also the publicity to consider. It's the nature of the profession to require readers and exposing that audience to the competition not only lets them see an entertaining show, but pick up a few interesting name (both books and writers).
    It is nice to have that bit of praise in front of you when you're having a bad day or to have that rainbow to chase. The gold at the end may be an overblown story or purely mythical, but it's about the journey, they all say. And I agree.

  18. Okay, Jim.
    I'm one of the few who read Cormac McCarthy like a person taking cod liver oil. Sure, it was good for me, I could observe tight prose, original use of language, a way to convey emotion through emotion, but I always found every book of his one hell of a tough slog.

    But you know what? I loved The Road. In fact I reviewed it on my my site. And this was in spite of what Oprah thought. And I have to admit, even I'm impressed she's getting him on in a rare interview. Even Charlie Rose couldn't do that.

    But let's get to this other issue. Your guilt.

    You're no longer in parochial school, there's no danger in going to limbo or hell if you don't like a book. You don't have to.

    For instance, I haven't been able to finish a single book by Don DeLillo. Reason? None. Guilt? None. I quit being pummeled by ivory tower agents long ago.

    So if I want to curl up with... oh...let's see....Thomas Farber or Chester Aarons I do. If I want to take a plane ride with John Grisham, I do. And if I want to watch a rerun of a tape with Antonio Banderas, I do that too.

    Power on, babe. Press that tuxedo for the next ceremony.

  19. Oh.... and I for one am glad Oprah gave John Steinbeck a boost. Did you know that at my library they don't have a complete collection of his works?

    This is an outrage given that the library is in California, and he is one of the state's most important writers.